Physician, Heal Thyself
This article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Kingdom Exodus (Lars von Trier, 2023)
For all his insolence and mischief-making, Lars von Trier rarely seems to be having much fun—and when he does, we’re usually left choking on the lulz. The exquisitely sardonic Dogville (2003) is a hoot until it snarls with rancor and disgust. The conceptual Jackass-ism of The Idiots (1998) is predicated on a mocking of disability so flagrant that it rises (sinks?) to a level of baroque absurdism that would get von Trier extremely canceled were it released today. Ah, the ’90s, when subversion of “political correctness” was more likely to be wielded by alt-culture rebels than the alt-right goblins of our cursed decade.
It was in the ’90s too when von Trier—before embarking, with Breaking the Waves (1996), on his long-term project of elaborately tormenting women—released what remains his most purely entertaining and joyful endeavor: The Kingdom (1994), a four-part miniseries made for Danish television, followed a few years later by a sequel series, The Kingdom II (1997). Set in a haunted, supremely dysfunctional Copenhagen hospital, the show merges screwball workplace comedy with supernatural horror tropes so deftly that it could, with only the slightest update to its low-fi video cinematography, be a word-of-mouth hit in the contemporary streaming landscape. As it happens, MUBI is releasing the first two seasons in restored versions, to be followed by the premiere of a long-awaited third season, The Kingdom Exodus (2022).
A manic compendium of digressions, non sequiturs, throwaway gags, proliferating subplots, and accelerating interpersonal, institutional, and cosmic chaos, the first two seasons of The Kingdom are held together by two poles of a structuring master narrative. Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), a Swedish doctor newly assigned to lead the hospital, performs surgery on a young girl named Mona (Laura Christensen) that leaves her in a vegetative state. Allegations of malpractice ensue, triggering a series of frantic, increasingly farcical gambits as Helmer attempts to find and destroy evidence related to the procedure, all while his primary nemesis, the laconic Dr. Jørgen “Hook” Krogshøj (Søren Pilmark), counterplots against him.
Meanwhile, hypochondriac spiritualist Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) scurries about attempting to commune with the ghost of another young girl named Mary, whose origin story lies deep in the literal swamp upon which the hospital was constructed—a Scandinavian riff on the “built atop a native burial ground” trope. Interwoven across the first two seasons, the machinations of Helmer (whose schemes include a ludicrous trip to Haiti to source zombie potion) and the misadventures of Drusse, our geriatric Nancy Drew, provide ballast for the series’s centrifugal narrative excesses, which perversely refuse to wind down and resolve—preferring, in the unhinged spirit of the project, to conclude with a fresh wallop of irrationality.
The ostensible theme of The Kingdom is the conflict between science and the occult, but this is effectively a MacGuffin that von Trier tosses off while setting about his real business: orchestrating the hijinks of his delightful ensemble. Järegård, who passed away shortly after the completion of the second season, gives one of the great comedic performances of the ’90s as Helmer, a scowling, paranoid scold whose chief personality trait is his implacable hatred of the Danes. His absence from the third season is acutely felt, but von Trier contrives a sly extension by proffering Mikael Persbrandt in the role of Helmer’s son, who takes over his father’s position.
In the season three pilot, Dr. Helmer Jr. (or “Halfmer,” as the staff take to trolling him) is determined to find out what drove his father to madness and, in his own manner, perpetuate the late doctor’s vituperative legacy. Moments after snapping “Who’s that faggot?” at an employee zipping down the hall on a scooter, Helmer Jr. convenes a meeting to chastise the hospital staff for their lack of diversity, before announcing a “hirification” initiative requiring all he/she pronouns to be systematically replaced by the gender-neutral “hir.” This uproarious scene nails the scurrilous tone of the series as well as its satirical bite: von Trier isn’t mocking people who identify as non-binary but rather the bureaucratization of “diversity” as an empty gesture that gives cover to cretins who maintain the status quo.
Retiring to his new office, our good doctor is delighted by the piles of flat-packed IKEA furniture awaiting him—if anyone was wondering whether Swedes are just as thwarted by attempting to assemble their Kolbjörn cabinets as the rest of us, the season-long discombobulation of Helmer Jr.’s office offers hilarious solace. Oh, von Trier’s got jokes. But does he still have the go-go juice? Can he maintain the crazed momentum and gonzo twists of the first two seasons? The director has long credited Twin Peaks as an inspiration for The Kingdom. Is Exodus his Return, a radical mutation of the original DNA? A one-of-a-kind, five-hour-long, unclassifiable masterwork?
The opening scene suggests we may indeed be in for something startlingly new. We cut from the exterior of a suburban home at night, luxuriously backlit with rich blue tones of a kind excised from the previous Kingdom’s grainy, aggressively desaturated sepia cinematography, to an extreme close-up of a woman’s eye as she watches… the finale of The Kingdom II. Ejecting the DVD, the elderly woman, Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), mutters what many viewers of the less-inspired second season were left thinking: “How can they peddle such half-baked hooey?” Climbing into bed, placing a bell around her neck, and tying herself down with loose knots—Karen is a sleepwalker—she dreams of The Kingdom and awakens haunted by the unresolved events of season two. She takes a taxi to Copenhagen’s Rigshospitalet, where The Kingdom was set and filmed (and from which it takes its name—Riget is “kingdom” in Danish), and, walking through the door, triggers a return to the visual palette and squatter aspect ratio of the former series. On entering The Kingdom, we enter The Kingdom and remain squarely within its universe to the end.
How that end arrives, I leave for you to discover, but I will note that Exodus is surprisingly committed to picking up the narrative pieces of its predecessor and bringing them to something like closure—albeit by opening a gateway to the inferno. The third season does not depart from the template of the first two in significant ways, although the aesthetic jitters and storytelling frenzy are a little more subdued. The most distinctive formal break from the prior seasons is their meta-existence within the diegetic world of the third: the characters in Exodus are aware that two seasons of The Kingdom were shot in their workplace, and are annoyed at the attention and infamy it brings to their already demented hospital. (In one of the later episodes, a tour guide is overheard explaining to his group, “The second season wasn’t as good.”)
Several original cast members return, all of whom are to some extent traumatized and transformed by the events of the past. But the show largely belongs to the dovetailing fates of Dr. Helmer Jr. and our Drusse surrogate, Karen. Exodus commits to Helmer’s Danish-loathing and extends it to droll effect: the doctor is delighted to stumble across “Swedish Anonymous” meetings of his fellow nationals, held in the bowels of the hospital (“Hello everyone, I’m Nora and I’m a Swede”), and intermittently confers with a “Swedish lawyer” (Alexander Skarsgård, lampooning a role played by his father, Stellan, in season two), whose office is located in a women’s restroom. Karen sleuths for clues to the Mona/Mary enigma while combating a satanic figure called the Grand Duc (Willem Dafoe!), who spontaneously transforms into an owl.
While neither of the leads have the charisma of Järegård or Rolffes, they more than hold their own in a series that does the same. Few T.V. shows have matched the berserk pleasures of the first season, and if the second tried and didn’t quite succeed, the more reflexive third seems to consciously strike what amounts (by the loony criteria of The Kingdom) to a mellower, more ruminative tone. During the closing credits of the first two seasons, a tuxedoed von Trier would address the audience with a recap and promises of further antics to come. Visibly amused by the puzzles and provocations he’d just delivered, the smirking auteur came across as a callow prankster who, for all the pleasures he affords his viewers, is rather too pleased with himself.
In the third season, von Trier reprises these summaries, though this time from behind a curtain, his shoes poking out, his voice wearier, his monologues more oblique. He admits, in the first of these veiled appearances, to some embarrassment at looking back on his brasher self. During the production of The Kingdom Exodus, von Trier struggled with symptoms of his recently diagnosed Parkinson’s disease, and has since announced a break from filmmaking to manage his condition. After the numbing ordeals of Nymphomaniac (2013) and The House That Jack Built (2018), Exodus resurrects the whirligig ensemble verve and apocalyptic ecstasy of Melancholia (2011) in a lighter key. Whatever difficulties he experienced on set, returning to The Kingdom brings out the best of von Trier’s high-spirited impishness. That the merciless satirist of the Rigshospitalet may now find himself in the care of such an institution is an awful fortune, but if Exodus is destined to be his swan song, it will stand as a worthy summation to The Kingdom’s wondrous comedy of collapse.
Nathan Lee is an assistant professor of film at Hollins University and a longtime contributor to Film Comment.